Marxist Anthropology

By Sarah Morrow and Robert Lusteck

Basic Premises

Marxism is essentially an economic interpretation of history based primarily on the works of Karl Marx and Frederich Engels. Marx was a revolutionary who focused his efforts on understanding capitalism to overthrow it. The rationale for the development of capitalism and the need to move towards communism is developed fully in Capital (1867), but introduced in The Communist Manifesto (1848). Marx, whose orientation was largely materialist and historicist, framed his analysis around four central points: the physical reality of people, the organization of social relations, the value of the historical context of development, and the human nature of continuous praxis.

As far as anthropology is concerned, the foundational work is Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State: In Light of the Investigations of Lewis H. Morgan (1884). Lewis Henry Morgan’s materialist focus had lead Marx to making extensive notes on Ancient Society (1877), which Engels would later expand into The Origin…. Both of these men were influenced by Louis Henry Morgan and his model of social evolution based on material concerns. Morgan proposed that societies moved from more primitive to more civilized stages of development. The Marxist version of this resulted in transitions of stage from primitive communism, through feudalism and capitalism, to communism; stages are judged in terms of the modes of production which dominate each stage. Marx did not see these stages as progressive steps that every culture must progress through, but as being the development of historically contingent communities and their modes of production.

The modes of production form the base or infrastructure of a society. This base determines the superstructure (laws, governments, and other legal and political apparati), and both determine the ideology (including philosophies, religions, and the ideals which prevail in a society at any one time). Class struggle is the prime mover for such a system to advance stages. It is inevitable that change will occur and that the classes will realign themselves. However the ruling classes have a vested interest in maintaining their power and will seek to resist such change, though futilely in the long run, by whatever means they can. A key tool of the ruling classes is the elaboration of mystification in ideology, which results in the false consciousness of the lower class. Social evolution can be slowed, but not stopped.

Points of Reaction

Marxist anthropology came about through the works of Marx and Engels and their followers. It developed as a critique and alternative to the domination of Euro-American capitalism and Eurocentric perspectives in the social sciences. Marx was heavily influenced by extensive reading of Classical and Enlightenment era philosophers. Epicurean thought, which focused on the agency of the individual, the absence of a divine power, and the importance of contingency over teleology, was pervasive in Marx’s writing, including his dissertation work. Rousseau’s emphasis on history as being a self correcting tool to validate or contradict the statements of politicians clearly influences Marx’s understanding of the connection between the structure and the mode of production.

Hegel’s work, which had the most significant impact on Marx, centered on  the community (while Kant centered on the individual) and its role in the historically contingent realities in which it exists. Marx would spend much of his career drawing from and critiquing Hegel. The emphasis on the ability of humans to produce social change, the contradictory relationships of power, and the need for systematic investigation into the nature of social problems was very influential to Marx (see Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit from 1807). However, Hegel advocated a teleological approach to social change that Marx would reject throughout his later works. When Darwin posited his theory of Natural Selection in The Origin of Species (1859), Marx took the argument to be self evident and intuitive to his understanding of both the natural world and humanity’s role within it.

Leading Figures

Marx, Karl (1818-1883): Marx is often called the most successful social scientist of all time. Born in 1818, Marx lived during a period that allowed him to document the ways in which capitalism and the rise of industry influenced class structures. As a Jewish born Prussian, Marx experienced social divisions from an early age, despite his family being of notable wealth. His time at the University of Bonn and the University of Berlin would lead him to explore philosophical inquires relating to the emancipation of man from religious and political structures. Drawing from Hegel, Marx was an advocate of understanding economic and political changes as a historically contingent dialectic. His Hegelian idealism would diminish over the course of his writings and he would begin to approach his work with a more systematic, scientific approach. The emphasis on understanding these changes through material concerns would lead Marx to identify production as being at the heart of class differences.

By looking at capitalism in a holistic fashion, Marx developed a theory of change based around the need for social classes to become equal as the modes and relations of production changed. Marx emphasized that the central component of the worker’s revolution was not philosophical concerns, but action. Through analysis of failed revolutions, successful revolutions, and nations on the verge of revolution, Marx believed that the criteria for a successful communist nation could be discerned. In the process, he developed a set of economic structures and their progressive development. His life was marked by constant pressure from various governments across Europe, multiple expulsions from European countries, and a strong family connection to social movements. Without a doubt, he was one of the first true social scientists and, standing alongside Durkheim and Weber, one of the most influential social scientists in history.

Engels, Friedrich(1820-1895): Engels was Marx’s colleague and friend who aided Marx in the establishment of his theories on society and continued to work on Marxist ideas after Marx’s death. Engels experienced the plight of English workers through the eyes of a young industrialist. His unique perspective, published in his first major work The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1844), allowed him to identify the working-class as the origin of social action. Engels’ orientation allowed him to connect heavily with Karl Marx. The two philosophers collaborated until Marx’s death in 1883.

Engels then went on to edit and reevaluate Marx’s notes for futher publication. Engels is often seen as the scapegoat for the failure of the Soviet Union and other such manifestations of communism due to his emphasis on hierarchy. This does not seem to be a fair assessment. Engels and Marx wrote collaboratively, so dividing the work as belonging to solely one or the other is a difficult, and a questionable, task.

Bloch, Maurice (1939- ): Bloch is a British anthropologist and a well-known defender of French Marxism and Marxist anthropology. He is often noted as a key figure in the introduction of the revival of French Marxism to British Social Anthropology. Ideology, cognition, and language have been at the center of Bloch’s work. These are seen as indicators of the differential distribution of power within a structured system.

Wolf, Eric (1923-1999): Wolf was a Marxist who proposed three modes of production in his prominent work Europe and the People Without History (1982): capitalist, tributary, and kin-ordered. Wolf was a significant figure in the field of American anthropology. As a student of Julian Steward, Wolf was exposed to Marxism early in his academic career. Wolf critiqued Western history for over emphasizing the role of aristocratic figures and underplaying the history and dynamic nature of non-Western and subordinate cultures. The academic divisions within the social sciences was evaluated as being a false division, as well, that denied the complexity of humanity. In this sense, Wolf saw Marx as being a true anthropologist by evaluating capitalism in a holistic sense.

Gramsci, Antonio(1891-1937): One of the leading figures in Marxism prior to World War II and an Italian communist who formulated the idea of hegemony. He is considered one of the greatest Marixst philosophers of the 20th Century. Gramsci saw human history as being key to the Marxist agenda of social change and that nature only mattered to the point that it interacted with mankind. Here, Gramsci separated his own socialist theories from from the materialist concerns of orthodox Marxism. The concept of cultural hegemony was articulated by Gramsci in order to explain why the revolution had not occurred. Gramsci was imprisoned for his ideas during Mussolini’s reign and died in a prison hospital.

Althusser, Louis (1918-1990): Althusser was a very influential neo-Marxist in the 1960’s, who introduced a structuralist approach to Marxism. Althusser was known for taking a critical stance on the French Marxist School and the Structural Marxist School, but selectively utilizing key theory points from both schools in order to address Marxism in economics. Althusser’s career was marked by mental illness and the murder of his wife.

Godelier, Maurice (1934- ): A French Marxist and proponent of economic anthropology. Godelier is a strong advocate of anthropology embracing a Marxist theory with a Structuralist bent. His work focuses on understanding what modes of production, superstructure, and infrastructure would look like for non-Western cultures. Critics of this version of French Marxism claimed that Godelier tried to force a capital structure onto the history of non-Western peoples who had not been capitalist societies before contact with the West.

Key Works

The Communist Manifesto (1848): The best known of Marx and Engels’ works and one of the most eloquent calls to social action ever published. The Communist Manifesto lays out Marxism’s basic economic theories, shows the basic struggle between classes, and recommends action against the ‘specter’ of capitalism.

Das Kapital or Capital (1867): One of Marx’s most complete and mature works, the aim of Capital is to show how the capitalist system is exploitative in that it “transfers the fruit of the work of the majority…to a minority” and questions why this condition continues. Marx’s solution to this problem is ideology, which blinds the workers to the truth of their plight.

Ancient Society (1877): In this anthropological classic, Lewis Henry Morgan takes a social evolutionary approach to understanding changes in material culture. This would become a deeply influential text to Marx and Engels as it verified the central role that material goods play in developing a centralized economy and the subsequent emphasis that emerges on private property. This work would become the basis for Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884): Engels most influential work in anthropology, it presents the evolution of humankind from primitive communism, to slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and finally, industrial communism which would transcend the classes of the prior three stages.

The Evolution of Culture (1959): Leslie White develops his argument about the nature of culture and the role that material culture plays in this classic text. Here, White articulates his grand theory about the ways that the technological aspects of culture create the structural aspects of culture, which in turn create the ideological aspects of culture. This is a clearly Marxist understanding of culture as material. It is aimed at the technological sphere with the understanding that demystification at the level of the ideological sphere can only occur with a clear understanding of the impact of the technology on individuals. The value of labor is articulated here as the physical energy of the individual.

Perspectives in Marxist Anthropology (1973): This collection of essays by Maurice Godelier investigates the potential applications of a Marxist analysis to precapitalist cultures. By looking at economic systems as historically contingent with the modes of production, Godelier saw the aspects of culture and society that related to economic change as multifunctional traits. These traits shifted in response to the needs of the developing economy and must be studied as scientific objects. This is then applied to what had been called “primitive” cultures.

The Modern World-System Vols I-IV (beginning in 1974): In this series, Wallerstein charts the origins of the world system. World Systems theory proposes interconnectivity between nations in the form of some locations being at the center of the line of production (core), while others are more peripheral (periphery or semi-periphery). Wallerstein relates this global movement to the capitalist emphasis on production and the historical contingency of where and when capitalism enters peripheral locations. This shift usually occurred in response to power differentials between classes and Western/non-Western cultures. Here, the system itself is the focus of analysis, not the components.

Europe and the People Without History (1982): Wolf’s influential critique of Western scholarship focuses on the power roles that have become ingrained in social science discourse and the lack of consideration of  unwritten history. While focusing on the relevant modes of production, Wolf notes that the image of cultures without written records as being unchanging before contact with European powers is detrimental. This exoticization of the ‘other’ robs cultures of their history and agency in their own development. Wolf also advocates for a more holistic, interdisciplinary approach to understanding the ever spreading reach of capitalism.

Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (1986): Sidney Mintz reviews the history of sugar as a commodity over the last 1,000 years with an emphasis on the role of labor and production. Mintz argues that “sweetness” has had a strong influence on the historical development of power relations and exchange. By focusing on sugar and its holistic relationship with society, Mintz successfully argues the Marxist ideal of an integrated approach.

Critical Medical Anthropology (1995): Merrill Singer and Hans Baer investigate the ways in which medical systems mirror power differentials in social classes. By looking at the intersection of the individual, economic forces, and political systems, Singer and Baer argue that current medical practices are indicative of an exchange of goods. Critical medical anthropology focuses on these violations of human rights through a careful analysis of the political economy of health disparities.

Principal Concepts

Dialectical Materialism: This is the philosophical school of Marxism. A focus on the dialectical relationship between the historical contingency of the structure, the material production, and the community is at the center of this theoretical model.

Base and Superstructure: The base consists of the forces and relations of power that are influential to the community. The superstructure is the political, economic, and legal organization of the structure. Standing beside this superstructure is the ideological structure. This system is often cited as a flaw in Marxism and seen as a kind of political economy determinism.

Labor: This is productive labor, that work which is needed to sustain production and go beyond the level of the immediate producer. Labor is the sum of the work of the individual through the means of labor and the subject of labor. Labor disappears in the product, as the result is its value.

Means of Production: The means of production include both the technology or tools with which production is being completed (means of labor) and the raw materials that are being transformed during production (subject of labor).

Forces of Production: The things we use to produce what we need, including the means of production and labor (including both physical and mental capacities): that is, the combination of the power of labor, the technology of tools used, and the raw materials being converted.

Relations of Production: The relationships that individuals are forced to develop to survive within a capitalist-driven system and to produce and reproduce their means. These relationships vary between the members of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Control of the relations of production comes from ownership of the means of production.

Mode of Production: The way in which all required aspects of everyday life are produced. The mode of production is dictated by the relations of production and the forces of production. The forces of production determine the general mode of production, but only within the confines of the relations of production. When the relations of production conflict with the forces of production, the mode of production must change.  This forced change usually happens when the forces of production advance beyond the locus of control for the current version of the relations of production, i.e., a class struggle will occur in response to a disconnection between relation and force. This will continue until the mode of production meets the needs of both.

Immediate Producer: The immediate producers are those who produce what they themselves consume and more/surplus. The surplus production is that which is in excess of the immediate producer’s consumption. In a capitalist system the product is never the property of the producer, however. The product is the property of the capitalist.

Class: Classes are groups consisting of those individuals who occupy similar positions in relationship to the  means of production and forces of production. Class divides societies because some possess control of the relations of production through ownership of the means of production and some do not. The rise of private property and the state is the source of these class distinctions. Dialectical materialism states that these class distinctions lead to social solidarity through a collective consciousness.

Communism: Communism is a classless society in which individuals control their own labor through a shared structure of general production. ?There is no private property (beyond personal effects), and all hold in common the means of production.


Marx did not leave a clear methodological framework for his philosophy. One of the basic methods of Marxist anthropology is to try to find classes in societies around the world, and examine the ways in which they interact. Marx, himself, focused on this kind of ethnographic research by developing individual case studies. When a political order based on class is found which seems to lack class conflict, special attention is paid. Attention has also been paid to the ways in which cultures resist the spread of capitalism. It has often been felt that Marxism is particularly well-suited to ferreting out the hidden resistance present in religion and ideology.

Marxism is dedicated to examining the modes of production present in any society, and there may be more than one present. The dialectical method is also an important concept in Marxism, which is built on the examination of contradictions between classes, ideas, etc.. When well-applied, the Marxist framework can be used to examine the developments of some societies at various scales. However, there is no one unifying method or vision in Marxism. This is complicated by discussions of “Marxist”, “Marxian”, and “Marxism” as differing concepts (Maquet, 1984).


Marxism formed the basis for the anthropologies, and indeed, the governments, of both China and the Soviet Union/Russia. The idea that the most successful groups seeking a communist life would be societies with a peasant class capable of understanding the benefits of sharing resources fit well here. The peasant class of Russia was seen by Marx as the ideal breeding ground for communism. However, the resulting Soviet Union may not have been what Marx had in mind. In Europe and North America, it was highly unpopular to be associated with Marxism until well after World War II. The works of other anthropologists, like Boas and Malinowski, made it further “unfashionable” to be associated with such ideas. Materialist concerns were not popular with the Boasians, nor was Marxism an acceptable orientation due to the political implications of Communism (of  the Soviet sort). The impact of being labeled “red” kept many Western Marxist anthropologists in the closet until after the end of McCarthyism.

Marxism in anthropology has served to raise a number of questions in anthropological reasoning. It has resulted in several other approaches in anthropology, including cultural materialism and cultural ecology. The agenda of Marxism was conveyed by Leslie White (1900-1975) when he focused American Materialism on the technological sphere of cultures and its influence on the creation of the structure and the ideology of cultures. In other words, White identified the mode of production, its relation of production, and the ways in which the dominant powers utilize mystification to control production and labor (Peace, 2004). Cultural Ecology was championed by Julian Steward (1902-1972). Steward looked at the material concerns of mankind in relation to the environment. Marx had always made a point of noting that humans are a part of the natural world. With this in mind, Steward looked at the connections between environment and possible modes of production.

It has also added to the efforts of feminist anthropology and has had a number of influences on archaeology, an endeavor which centers around the interpretation of the material remains of social action. Feminist Post-Marxism is drawn on heavily by Judith Butler (1956-). Here, Feminist and Queer Anthropology see the linguistic differentiation between genders as an example of a power struggle imposed by structure. Butler extrapolates further to indicate that utilizing this kind of language is a performance act, per Marx’s ideas concerning the  recreation of social structure in everyday encounters and Michel Foucault’s subjugation theory.

The link between gender, sexuality, language, and class power has also been explored by Sally McConnell-Ginet. Her analysis of the impact of diagnostic terminology and terminology of social solidarity in gender and sexuality indicates that dominate class views are deeply pervasive in language (McConnell-Ginet, 2002). The French Marxist school of thought brought together Marxist philosophy, Levi-Strauss’ Structuralism, and what would become known as Postmodernism. The post-WWII developments included the Existentialist Marxism of Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the rejection of total history by Michel Foucault (1926-1984), and the Structural Marxism of Althusser. French Marxism collapsed after the protests of 1968 and the failure of the revolution.

In recent years, Marxism has been evaluated as being something of a passé model for theory and has been overlooked in many areas. Anthropology, however, has maintained an air of Marxism due to the tendency for anthropologists to promote a social justice orientation. Neo-Marxism has become more pervasive under the name of Political Economy. Contemporary Political Economy focuses on the tangible disparities between differing socioeconomic groups due to political influences.

The works of Wolf, Andre Gunder Frank (1929-2005), Immanuel Wallerstein (1930 – ), and the more recent work of Noam Chomsky (1928 – ) all relate to Political Economy and Hegemony, while selectively pulling from Marx and Gramsci. Since the publication of Building a New Biocultural Synthesis: Political-Economic Perspectives on Human Biology (Goodman & Leatherman, 1998), the connections between class disparities, health statuses, and access to resources have been clear to applied biocultural anthropologists. The political economy of language has become a notable area of inquiry, including the ways in which language is a tool for economic exchange (Irvine, 1989). The lasting legacy of Marx is this increased awareness of the broader impact of class structures on virtually all human populations..


One of the main criticisms of Marxism is that it is not particularly anthropological in nature, not being interested in culture and ethnography per se. Marx, however, completed many case studies on the successes and failures of specific cultures and social groups in creating his philosophy When anthropologists did apply it in a more anthropological framework, it looked less and less like Marxism. Marxism has been restricted by its inability “to deal with culture as a distinct and irreducible order of signs and meanings”. One criticism of Marxists themselves is that they have often “built their work on unacknowledged Marxist assumptions about the importance of class and inequality in social life without properly confronting either the strengths or the weaknesses of Marxist theory”.

A major criticism is that Marxism has no particular unified aim or method; many Marxists argue more among themselves than with other theorists. Marxism has also been criticized on its definition of ideology which puts it forth as a plot created by the ruling class to mystify the lower class. Further, how the ideology spreads is also unclear. Another problem that Marxism has faced is in the evaluation of societies that do not possess any classes; how and why did ‘primitive communism’ change without a conflict of classes? In many societies, kinship, religion, and ethnicity seem to have provided stronger connections than has class.

When viewed independently, this critique makes sense. No aspect of culture operates in isolation, however.  All elements of social systems, such as kinship, religion, and ethnicity can reflect social class. Other terms in Marxism have also been criticized, such as the labor theory of value, which states that the value of work is the cost of materials and labor involved, a definition which assumes voluntary cooperation of laborers and does not include management costs and responsibilities. Today, Marxism is criticized for overemphasizing the reach of capitalism.

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